Breaking Out of the Asylum: Interview with Director Leigh Scott

leighWhether or not you actually agree with Leigh Scott’s methods of filmmaking and business, whether or not you like Asylum, whether or not you’ve ever bothered to see a film from Asylum, you can’t argue that Leigh Scott is definitely ambitious and has an eye for detail. Though films like “Transmorphers” and “Pirates of Treasure Island” were considered busts and universally mocked, there’s a definite knack for detail and cinematography there that you can’t deny.

Leigh Scott went to work for Asylum pictures a long time ago becoming their most prominent director, a man who guaranteed to get their movies out there in time with a solid cast, and since then he’s branched out to make films on his terms and try to emulate the directors he’s come to admire as a film buff. The Milwaukee born filmmaker is still at it, and now has the chance to hit the scene in a big way with a revisiting of the L. Frank Baum tale “The Wizard of Oz” which is a modern take with a twist called “The Witches of Oz” about an adult Dorothy now being called on to save her own reality when the Wicked Witch of the West decides to conquer Earth.

Often a controversial filmmaker spawning many articles and questions of his practices, Scott has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon and continues to power on with this much talked about production expected to have a limited release soon. Though Leigh and I have a rather interesting, volatile, infamous (any other adjectives you can think of) history together, I thought it would be a good chance to interview Scott and see what he’s been up to and why he decided to twist the tale of “Wizard of Oz” for the modern age.

We meet again, Scott. How are you?
I’m doing great. Never better.

So for the readers who don’t know you, who is Leigh Scott?
When I was about six years old I decided that I wanted to make movies. I’ve never looked back. I’ve done about 20 feature films, all lower budget and mostly “genre” films.

How did you start out in the business?
I went to film school at USC. While I was there I worked for Roger Corman at Concorde Pictures on the weekends and then during the summer. I was pretty persistent and worked in every department possible so I could learn everything. When I graduated from USC I raised a bunch of money and made a film. It didn’t go anywhere, but it allowed me to learn more about the business and get into the Hollywood network. I then worked exclusively in various film jobs, raising money and directing movies in between working as a grip, AD, camera assistant etc. One thing just led to another and I’ve been a producer/writer/director for the last five years.

You worked for Asylum for a long time, how was that experience?
Working at the Asylum was more fun than most people should be allowed to have. It was like college all over again, while getting to make movies and oh, getting paid.

Asylum has been under constant scrutiny in the press for basically making its living off of copying big budget blockbusters. What’s your opinion on that?
The Asylum isn’t any less original than anyone else who makes movies for profit in Hollywood. They are just more savvy and shameless about it. The real irony to me is that most of the actual films they make, despite the marketing campaigns and titles, are more original than stuff being done by the big studios and other indie outlets. It’s just so blatant that people who never see the films pile on and criticize their originality. I mean, what’s more original, the actual film inside the TRANSMORPHERS box or the tired and lame slasher movies put out on a daily basis by some of the bigger indie studios? And the big guys are even worse.

What would you say was your favorite project from Asylum?
We did three movies almost back to back: FRANKENSTEIN REBORN, THE BEAST OF BRAY ROAD and DRACULA’S CURSE. We called it the classic monster “Box Set”. I’d say those three together are my favorite. They’re all interconnected in a film geek sort of way and they’re the only Asylum that I’ve watched for fun once the films were done.

Where do you draw your film influences from?
I love the fact that movies are a combination of a bunch of different art forms. Music, theater, literature, photography all come together to make a movie. So, a lot of times it will be a piece of music or a photograph that will give me an idea for either a story or help me figure out how to shoot something or cut something for a film.

I’m a huge fan of genre movies made between 1981 and about 1992. It was the “Golden Age of Spielberg” and gave us movies like Gremlins and Ghostbusters. I miss movies like that, which is what sort of led me to make The Witches of Oz.

On your MySpace page the phrase “Good artists copy, Great artists steal” is prominent. What’s your take on that ideology?
That’s actually a quote from Picasso. The basic idea is that art is a linear progression, cave drawings lead to photoshop. So, good artists are aware of that and strive to build on and be influenced by what others have done before them. Stealing means that you take it and make it your own. I think it’s pretty true, and I picked it because of all the heat I got from working at the Asylum.

Where did the idea for “Witches of Oz” stem from?
About four years ago everybody in Hollywood was buying up these lame “tween” books looking for the next Harry Potter. At about the same time I was charged with finding public domain stuff at the Asylum. When I discovered that the Wizard of Oz was available, I pitched it to them. They were afraid of it because it was such a well known property and at the time horror stuff was still the rage. Plus, it just sounds expensive, and now having done it, they were right!

Did you read any of the books or watch any of the movies to research the story for this new film?
I read it all and watched it all. The books are really weird. They’re written for little kids, but the concepts and ideas are really adult and creepy. As for the movies, I think RETURN TO OZ is pretty underrated. Every film about Oz has to live in the shadow of the 1939 film which isn’t just the definitive Oz movie, it’s one of the most iconic films in history. We decided, unlike the 1985 Oz film, to incorporate the musical into our film through subtle references and a few bigger elements of the production design, creature design, wardrobe etc.

What is the proposed budget for this new film?
It’s tough to say because of the way the film came together. My partners (Eliza Swenson and Chris Campbell) were incredibly supportive and artistically indulgent so we made decisions that you usually wouldn’t make if you were making a film aimed for the SyFy channel or a DVD release. Because of that a lot of our friends and associates who are pretty big time and well out of our price range have decided to help out.

It’s ironic because in attempting to make something less commercial, we ended up putting together something that has ended up with greater potential. So, cash out of pocket it cost more than all of my Asylum films combined, but if we were to pay retail rates for all of the talented people working on it, it would probably be in the 10-15 million dollar range.

What’s it like working with Christopher Lloyd?
He’s a great guy. Real quiet, which you wouldn’t expect because he is so larger than life after you call “action”. It was a little weird calling him “Chris” because I have such respect for him and grew up on the movies he’s made (and not just Back to the Future, but Star Trek 3 and Buckaroo Bonzai).

Word has it you cast Jason Mewes, how is he to work with?
Jason is Jason. Totally cool guy. His emails and voicemails are hilarious.

Paulie Rojas has a real classical look to her, was that one of the things you took in to consideration when casting her as Dorothy?
Yes. Paulie does have this sort of Audrey Hepburn thing going on which was key. We needed somebody who just looked innocent and had a sort of etherial, classic beauty. From the first time she shows up in the film you know that she’s the good guy and you’re rooting for her. It was important to cast someone who could hold their own opposite Eliza Swenson who plays Dorothy’s big city best friend. Eliza has such a va va va voom look that we needed balance, but still needed somebody beautiful and able to act the wide range of emotions that the character goes through.

Lance Henrisken is also set to star, what role will he be playing? And how was he to work with?
Lance is the man. He is sort of the opposite of Christopher Llyod. Lance always plays tough guy badasses and in real life he is a tough guy badass. We worked together at the Asylum and we’re friends, so it was fun to work with him on something completely different. He plays Dorothy’s Uncle Henry who was a big character in the books, but a small character in the 1939 film.

Are you working with the Asylum to release this or another studio altogether?
The Asylum had nothing to do with this show. We have a sales agent in place who will start selling the film once it’s complete this summer.

Are you pushing for a limited theatrical run or a DVD release?
I’m sure it will show up in a few theaters. We are doing all of our post production anticipating theatrical release.

Why do you think the Wizard of Oz continues to be material that filmmakers tap?
It’s a great fantasy world. It’s like Lord of the Rings in the sense that the universe of the story is so fleshed out. It has a history, a geography and all sorts of great creatures and characters.

If you can tell us, what will be your interpretation of the three characters from Oz (i.e. The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man, etc.)?
Those characters are definitely in the film, and they are seen in various incarnations. I’d hate to give too much away…

Are you going to be implementing traditional effects or CGI?
I like doing both. Nothing looks better than a practical effect that has a little extra CGI spice. For the Flying Monkeys in the film we went with actors in awesome creature suits, but added the wings in post. They look much more real than if we had gone 100% CGI. We are using a lot of CGI to create the world of OZ and the Emerald City.

There’s also a massive sequence in the finale where the Wicked Witch of the West unleashes all of the dark forces of Oz on Manhattan. There is a lot of CGI in that. We are up to around 1000 CGI shots for the film. To put it into perspective, most Asylum moves and SyFy channel films are in the 60-100 shot range.

Who would you like to work with in the future (i.e. actors or directors)?
I’m not really big into working with people who are “hot” right now. I’m much happier working with people like Lance, Jeff Combs, Billy Boyd and Mia Sara than I would be working with someone from Jersey Shore or say a Megan Fox. I really like working with actors that I respect and appreciate as well as lesser known actors who I have a history with like Eliza Swenson and Barry Ratcliffe. Having said that I’m a big Robert Downey Jr. fan and I think Emily Blunt is an amazing actress.

For readers not aware yet, what’s next in the pipeline for Leigh Scott?
We have a few things kicking around. Our company is in the mix for this big Science Fiction property that would be huge. We also have a super hero film, a really solid creature film, and another vampire action film that we may tackle once Oz is finished.

Sounds very promising. Thanks a lot for your time, Leigh!
Thank you. Keep up the good work. I read your reviews religiously!